What do you get a priest for Christmas?
For Father Henry Riffle at St. Michael the Archangel Parish, the answer is nativity scenes. He has been collecting them for nearly 30 years, and has amassed about 300 sets from 30 countries, which he displays yearly at St. Michael. It takes 4 1/2 days for Riffle and his volunteers to unpack the 70 boxes housing the collection and set it up, with Riffle carefully arranging and placing every single piece himself.
Riffle's collection includes more than typical nativity scenes made of wood, plastic or porcelain. Among the strangest of the materials used to create these manger scenes are eggshell, tin, tree bark, recycled glass bottles, cookie dough, banana leaves, tagua nut and papier-mache. There are English sterling silver teaspoons, a scene in the style of a Rubik's Cube, and even an oil painting on a gourd. There is a chipmunk Jesus, s'more Jesus, teddy bear Jesus, mouse, snowman, and cowboy Jesus. His figures range from 16 inches tall to small enough to fit inside of a 1-inch bottle. Any and every depiction of Jesus and the circumstances of his birth are represented in the collection.
Riffle began collecting nativity sets when he quit smoking in 1980. His doctor told him that smoking three packs a day would mean he'd be dead in 10 years, he said. When he got to the six-month mark, the program that he was following suggested he buy himself something nice. He bought a Precious Moments nativity set, to represent the "precious moment" when he quit.
The collecting bug was already in Riffle's blood. His father had amassed more than 1,000 miniature whiskey bottles by the time of his death, and had respectable stamp and postcard collections as well. Riffle himself had collected postcards and keys before, but his passion was ignited when he began collecting nativity sets. When he got a Vietnamese triptych with mother of pearl inlay, he began to widen the scope of his collection to include international nativity scenes.
"I fell in love with the idea of the whole world celebrating the birth of Christ," he said.
Though Riffle began the collection himself, he has purchased less than half of the sets he has on display. Most have been gifts. His oldest piece, a wax figure of Jesus from Germany dating to the 1890s, was given to him by a parishioner. His newest addition, Vietnamese figures made of recycled newspaper and magazines, was a gift this Christmas.
Though many of Riffle's international sets have been gifts, he has purchased many of them himself. He picked up his Zulu nativity set while celebrating Mass with the tribe in South Africa. He blessed another of his nativity sets in the place where Jesus is said to have been born.
Many of the international sets represent unique representations of the birth of Jesus. One scene from Aruba shows Mary nursing Jesus. Another from Africa includes three astrologers, in place of the wise men, one of whom is a woman. But Riffle's most unusual set, and his favorite (besides his family's nativity set from the 1930s), came from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
It is an acrylic sculpture made by an artist known only as Briarcraft, and the arrangement of the figures is quite out of the ordinary. Mary is resting after childbirth while Joseph holds the baby Jesus. While this would be enough to set the sculpture apart from most of the others, the opposite face of the sculpture contains the scene of Jesus' resurrection.
The collection's value, Riffle says, is "beyond dollars."
Almost 500 people have visited the collection this year, and Riffle says that observers "feel the universality of the Christmas message."
Samantha Fuchs can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6235.